- Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.
We know there will be a new player of the year in college softball, even if her hold on the honor is even more fleeting than usual.
Instead of a third consecutive season as the best player in the college game, UCLA’s Rachel Garcia is going for gold with Team USA this year. UCLA outfielder Bubba Nickles and Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola join her, putting their college achievements on hold for the upcoming season. Add in the normal matriculation of last year’s seniors, stars like Taran Alvelo, Kelly Barnhill and Sydney Romero, and a spring of change awaits.
Not that college softball is left without any star power. Whether they’re chasing home-run records, returning from redshirt seasons or preparing for Olympic experiences with teams that will hope to keep Team USA from gold, the top 25 players in college softball are ready to roll.
1. Gabbie Plain, P, Washington
2019 key stats: 24-2, 1.24 ERA, 0.76 WHIP
Washington won a national championship with a pitcher who had Olympic experience and a foreign passport when Danielle Lawrie led the Huskies to glory a decade ago. Now, Plain will try that in reverse order, attempting to win an NCAA title before leading Australia to Tokyo. And with Garcia sitting out to train with Team USA, Plain inherits the No. 1 ranking. She isn’t the two-way threat Garcia is (few players ever were), but the 6-foot Aussie and UCLA’s ace had almost identical pitching numbers a season ago. Only a junior, Plain has already pitched nearly 35 innings in the Women’s College World Series. She’s ready for all that 2020 has to offer.
2. Sis Bates, SS, Washington
2019 key stats: .387 BA, .463 OBP, .472 SLG
Bates is as exciting to watch as any player in recent memory. She seems to enjoy the game as much as anyone in recent memory. But put the viral highlights and charisma aside. She’s also simply as good an all-around shortstop as almost anyone who has come down the pipe in recent years. She ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in on-base percentage and was one of five players in that league with double-digit steals and at least a .460 on-base percentage. Errors and assists are woefully incomplete defensive measures, but even those blunt instruments say something when a shortstop piles up 111 assists while committing just two errors.
3. Jessie Harper, SS, Arizona
2019 key stats: .333 BA, .392 OBP, .814 SLG
She enters the season with 66 career home runs, 11 more than any other Division I player. But it is who she is chasing that could become one of the stories of the season. Harper is 29 home runs behind NCAA all-time leader Lauren Chamberlain. And that happens to be exactly how many home runs she hit for the Wildcats a season ago. A not-inconsequential consolation prize would be passing Katiyana Mauga for the Arizona and Pac-12 records — she needs 27 home runs to do that. The power alone would get her in the top 10, but providing those home runs while also playing a commendable shortstop is all the more impressive.
4. Giselle Juarez, P, Oklahoma
2019 key stats: 28-4, 1.39 ERA, 0.72 WHIP
It wasn’t the ending she or the Sooners wanted in the final series against UCLA, but Juarez delivered as advertised in her first season in Oklahoma. After a 26-6 record and 1.22 ERA as a sophomore at Arizona State, she went 28-4 with a 1.39 ERA a season ago. Few pitchers can match that, and no one matches her in the strikeout department. She’s the only returning pitcher in a major conference who worked at least 100 innings and struck out at least 10 batters per seven innings. Even with Mariah Lopez now at Arizona, Oklahoma’s remaining depth should keep Juarez from having to go much more than 200 innings.
5. Bailey Hemphill, 1B/DP, Alabama
2019 key stats: .375 BA, .524 OBP, .828 SLG
Alabama associate coach and first base coach Alyson Habetz was about the only person in Tuscaloosa who saw more of first base than Hemphill did a season ago. Whether trotting past the base after one of her 26 home runs or hanging out there courtesy of a .524 on-base percentage, Hemphill made life miserable for pitchers. The home runs set an Alabama single-season record, no small feat when Kelly Kretschman is an alum, and matched the SEC single-season record. Plus she was at her best when it mattered, going 13-for-28 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in Alabama’s final 10 games — against Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
6. Morganne Flores, C, Washington
2019 key stats: .348 BA, .452 OBP, .781 SLG
There isn’t an official comeback player of the year award in college softball, but surely we can agree that Morganne Flores lived the criteria a season ago. After missing the entire 2018 season with a knee injury, Flores started 59 games in 2019, mostly at one of the more demanding positions, and set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Only four players in the Pac-12 finished with more total bases, and only three players in the nation hit more home runs. Now the redshirt senior gets one more chance to win the national championship we’ll always wonder if Washington might have won with her in 2018.
7. Jocelyn Alo, OF, Oklahoma
2019 key stats: .379 BA, .484 OBP, .730 SLG
Alo put together the kind of run production as a sophomore that stacks up favorably with just about any season by any player in the country. It’s her misfortune that one of the few seasons it didn’t match was her own record-breaking freshman campaign. No, Alo didn’t hit 30 home runs or lead major conference players with a slugging percentage close to 1.000, both things she did as a freshman in 2018. But she still ranks among the top 20 returnees in Power 5 conferences in slugging percentage. She’s still the Big 12 returning leader in on-base percentage. That’s a sophomore slump that most players would love to suffer.
8. Amber Fiser, P, Minnesota
2019 key stats: 31-9, 1.27 ERA, 0.91 WHIP
There are a lot of programs in the SEC and Pac-12 that would give untold fortunes to have a pitching lineage like the one Minnesota has from Sara Moulton to Sara Groenewegen to Fiser over roughly the past decade. And Fiser may just leave the greatest legacy of them all by the time she wraps up her stay in the Twin Cities. She isn’t likely to catch Moulton in wins or Groenewegen in strikeouts, but she’s the one who pitched the Gophers to Oklahoma City with a 31-9 record, 1.27 ERA and 346 strikeouts a season ago. That soaring strikeout rate was huge. Roughly 30% of her outs came that way in 2018; nearly 45% did in 2019.
9. Sydney Sherrill, IF, Florida State
2019 key stats: .405 BA, .489 OBP, .762 SLG
For the first time in a long time, pitching is a question mark for the Seminoles. But there isn’t a lack of proven greatness in Tallahassee, not as long as Sherrill anchors the lineup. She was even better as a sophomore than as a freshman — and she was a big reason Florida State won a national title when she was a freshman. She turned some of the gap power of her debut, when she tied the NCAA single-season record for doubles, into home run power in her second season. And she did that while striking out less and walking more.
10. Kindra Hackbarth, OF, Arizona State
2019 key stats: .412 BA, .500 OBP. .841 SLG
There were a lot of good hitters in the Pac-12 last season. So many good hitters, in fact, that three of them are now playing with Team USA. And yet for all of that talent, no one had more total bases in Pac-12 games than Hackbarth in her second season in Tempe. Just for good measure, she also tied for the lead in stolen bases in league games. The Sun Devils play a home-loaded schedule early in the season, understandably given climate and facility. But there was nothing soft or schedule-aided about the power and speed she displayed last spring.
11. Megan Kleist, P, Louisiana-Lafayette
2018 key stats (at Oregon): 21-7, 1.32 ERA, 0.74 WHIP
Megan Good was last year’s wild card, the pitcher who returned after missing an entire season with injury and nearly led James Madison to the World Series. The Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year the last we saw her at Oregon in 2018, Kleist sat out last season after joining the exodus from Oregon following Mike White’s departure. With a career 1.60 ERA, she could mirror Good’s effect on another mid-major program that has long played far beyond the confines of that label.
12. Miranda Elish, P/Utility, Texas
2019 key stats: 18-10, 1.81 ERA, 0.91 WHIP; .315 BA, .388 OBP, .540 SLG
Although she played for the Longhorns in the fall, it will still be good for most of us to simply see Elish back on a softball field for the first time in a regular-season game after the horrific injury that ended her 2019 season. Prior to that moment, when she was struck in the face by a throw during an NCAA tournament game at Alabama, she had put together a stellar two-way season as a transfer from Oregon. Even if not as dominant in the circle as she was in her sensational sophomore season with the Ducks, she made the most of an increasing offensive role with .928 OPS.
13. Montana Fouts, P, Alabama
2019 key stats: 21-6, 1.39 ERA, 0.95 WHIP
Even with a 21-6 record and 1.39 ERA, Fouts didn’t have to do it all for the Tide. She had help from the likes of Sarah Cornell, who didn’t miss this list by all that much. But after some bumps — 30% of the earned runs she allowed came in a stretch of eight appearances from the SEC tournament through opening day in the Women’s College World Series — look at how she closed. With the season on the line, she threw a three-hit shutout against Arizona and a four-hit, eight-inning shutout against Oklahoma. That says plenty about where she goes from here.
14. Shelbi Sunseri, P/Utility, LSU
2019 key stats: .340 BA, .468 OBP, .748 SLG; 13-10, 2.34 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
Sunseri would probably make this list if all she did was hit and play the field. That’s what happens considering she compiled a 1.216 OPS while playing in a conference as good as the SEC. After flashing power potential in an injury-delayed freshman season in 2018, she showed off the finished product a season ago. But she took an even bigger step in the circle, going from just 13 innings as a freshman to a reliable arm who led the Tigers in innings pitched as a sophomore.
15. Summer Ellyson, P, Louisiana-Lafayette
2019 key stats: 39-6, 1.11 ERA, 0.76 WHIP
She probably isn’t going to win 39 games or pitch 270-plus innings again with Kleist around to share the load, but isn’t it nice to know that she can? With the possible exception of Minnesota’s Amber Fiser, Ellyson rose to the occasion better than anyone a season ago. She handled 73% of Louisiana’s innings in the circle, easily the greatest percentage of any pitcher on this list. And despite those extra innings, she improved her strikeout rate from 6.5 to 9.1 per seven innings.
16. Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, OF, Arizona
2019 key stats: .386 BA, .477 OBP, .787 SLG
A lot of misery went into Palomino-Cardoza getting a fifth season after two ACL tears, but Arizona is mighty grateful she is still around. All she’s done when on the field is produce runs about as consistently as anyone, posting consecutive slugging percentages of .711, .750 and .787. Her numbers in Pac-12 play a season ago were even essentially identical to her numbers out of conference. Among players eligible to return this season, only Morganne Flores, Kindra Hackbarth, Jessie Harper and Bubba Nickles had more total bases in Pac-12 games.
17. Danielle Williams, P, Northwestern
2019 key stats: 31-8, 1.55 ERA, 0.76 WHIP
It has been a while, perhaps since the World Series days of Eileen Canney more than a decade ago, that Northwestern had a pitcher with numbers like these. Williams burst on the scene in the Big Ten with a dominant debut season. She ranked sixth nationally in strikeout-to-walk ratio, right between Taran Alvelo and Rachel Garcia, and ninth in strikeouts per seven innings. And just for good measure, she hit three home runs in a suggestion of two-way greatness to come.
18. Kendyl Lindaman, C/DP, Florida
2019 key stats: .330 BA, .463 OBP, .614 SLG
If she’s a few spots lower than she was a season ago, it’s mostly an indication of how fine the margins are in trying to separate players who don’t have many flaws. Lindaman was just about everything she was anticipated to be in her first season after transferring from Minnesota. She lost some slugging percentage points in the move to the SEC, which is understandable given the pitching involved, but it’s telling that she actually slugged better in conference (.685) than out. As she got comfortable, she got better. That’s bad news for the rest of the SEC.
19. Aaliyah Jordan, OF, UCLA
2019 key stats: .383 BA, .467 OBP, .711 SLG
It’s too easy to overlook how good Jordan has been through two seasons. She had a freshman season for the ages, yet saw that effort overshadowed by Jocelyn Alo’s record-setting debut for Oklahoma. Then Jordan went out and nearly duplicated her numbers — the difference between 2018 and 2019 working out to essentially a single every six games. But that came alongside the sheer star wattage emitted by Rachel Garcia and even Bubba Nickles. With those two sitting out this season because of the Olympics, UCLA will be thrilled if Jordan keeps on keeping on.
20. Mia Davidson, C, Mississippi State
2019 key stats: .373 BA, .476 OBP, .882 SLG
It’s a new era for Mississippi State, as Samantha Ricketts steps into the head coaching role. But the former Bulldogs assistant will be grateful she isn’t starting from scratch in filling out a lineup card. Along with Fa Leilua, Davidson is a run producer with the potential to provide a lot of job security. She’s already 10th among active Division I players in career home runs, and she’s only a junior. The only thing left for Davidson to do to claim a spot in the top 10 — or even higher — is maintain her run production and plate discipline all the way through SEC play.
21. Kayla Konwent, 1B/DP, Wisconsin
2019 key stats: .459 BA, .582 OBP, .859 SLG
Well, that was worth the wait. Injuries effectively silenced Konwent’s first two years at Wisconsin. She didn’t play at all in 2018. All of which meant she went from 33 career at-bats in those first two years to Big Ten Player of the year in her third year. She ranked fourth nationally in on-base percentage a season ago and is easily the returning leader among players in a major conference (.582 to .524). It’s no wonder no one wanted to throw to her with 37 extra-base hits.
22. Grace Green, Utility, Oklahoma
2019 key stats: .359 BA, .442 OBP, .712 SLG
They don’t waste much time making an impression at Oklahoma, do they? Following in the freshman footsteps of Lauren Chamberlain, Sydney Romero, Jocelyn Alo and others, Green ranked eighth among Division I freshmen in slugging percentage and third among those in a major conference. She finished the season playing for a national championship and hitting between Alo and Shay Knighten in the lineup. That’s a pretty good debut effort.
23. Reyna Carranco, 2B, Arizona
2019 key stats: .416 BA, .457 OBP, .584 SLG
She’s going to end up starting around 230 games at second base in her career, which is reason enough to put her on the list. People don’t own positions like that at programs as competitive as Arizona. But she does more than show up. After two seasons in which she was very good with the promise of more to come, Carranco capitalized on the potential. Only UCLA’s Kelli Godin had a better average among Pac-12 players, and Carranco had 43 more total bases.
24. Megan Faraimo, P, UCLA
2019 key stats: 16-4, 1.41 ERA, 0.84 WHIP
Her time as understudy is finished, at least for now. With Rachel Garcia absent, Faraimo will likely make far more than the 21 starts she made as a freshman. The challenge is to see whether the promise she showed in more limited innings — including a nearly 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a strikeout rate comparable to Garcia’s — holds true against all comers this season. Helping the United States to a WBSC Under-19 world title last summer was a good start.
25. Hannah McEwen, OF, Arkansas
2019 key stats: .386 BA, .452 OBP, .492 SLG
Expand this list to a top 50, still select company, and Arkansas might end up among the teams with the most representatives. With Braxton Burnside, Danielle Gibson, Mary Haff and the impeccably named Autumn Storms around, this could be a special season in Fayetteville. But for now, McEwen carries the banner. Whether she hits home runs, as was the case her freshman year, or doubles, as was the case a season ago, she’s going to create runs.
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